The international copyright battle, a legal tug of war that has quietly gone unnoticed in Barbados, has suddenly become a feature of life.
Based on the grounds that it needs to protect itself from costly litigation and, importantly too, its business interests, Flow, the regional brand for Cable & Wireless, announced its blocking of “illegal” content that allows anyone with a computer and Internet connection to watch international movies and television programmes restricted from being shown here.
All computers have what’s known as an IP address, very much like your postal address, but in cyberspace and the Internet in particular.
What unblocking access to hundreds of entertainment and information services has done is simply to take you to another site where your computer no longer appears to be technically in Barbados and allows free access to programmes which your neighbours pay for and watch.
International copyright law has been around for decades, but like any legislation, the main issue is not how well crafted it is, but how to enforce it.
So although it is to all intents “illegal” to copy and sell material such as videos and songs which belong to someone else, it is commonplace to see shops around the corner or even peddlers on the pavement selling mass-copied DVDs of the latest movie.
Entertainment companies such as Netflix and international stars such as Rihanna have seen their copyright material watched by millions of viewers around the world –– one reason why Rihanna has to make her money from tours rather than the Internet, where copying and downloading and sale of her copyright songs are prevalent.
Industry watchers say the issue ought not to be incorrectly characterized as a fight among companies. In fact, they say, there is no war among these companies as legal content continues to be allowed on to telecommunication networks. The matter is one of enforcing international copyright law against “illegal” content.
Digicel and Flow enter into contracts on the delivery of content; hence, allowing access of illegal content opens them to lawsuits rooted in a breach of contract.
Having invested in bringing exclusive programming to viewers, either on smartphones, smart television sets or computers, termination of contracts would also carry an additional cost. It appears understandable too that while it should respect a regulatory decision that use of over-the-top services such as WhatsApp, Skype, Hangouts and YouTube should remain freely accessible, with a commitment also to ensure the best quality bandwidth is maintained, it is not totally unexpected that a telecommunications company would block the services of any company that violates international copyright law.
The argument which countries such as the United States and Barbados uphold in law is that the citizen should have a right to pay for bandwidth, get the quality of bandwidth they pay for and use that bandwidth as they see fit, once it is done so legally.
Everyday services such as YouTube and WhatsApp, which are free, fall under this social and legal obligation to observe net neutrality regulation.
Netflix and Paypal have moved to block companies that allow individuals to watch shows and movies outside of the jurisdictions where citizens pay to view them.
Barbados has consequently been catapulted into the global limelight, I suspect politically as well as legally, as the parent company of Unblock-Us is reported to be located at Belleville, St Michael. Whether international pressure will now be brought to bear on Government remains to be seen in what might be the first salvos
in an ongoing war of Internet access.
But for some Barbadians it is simply a case of entertainment and tuning in to watch the next episode.
(Hallam Hope is a communications consultant.